Complex Channel Responses to Changes in Stream Flow and Sediment Supply on the Lower Duchesne River, Utah

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Complex channel responses, stream flow, sediment supply, Lower Duchesne River, Utah


Channel responses to flow depletions in the lower Duchesne River over the past 100 years have been highly complex and variable in space and time. In general, sand-bed reaches adjusted to all perturbations with bed-level changes, whereas the gravel-bed reaches adjusted primarily through width changes. Gravel-bed reaches aggraded only when gravel was supplied to the channel through local bank erosion and degraded only during extreme flood events. A 50% reduction in stream flow and an increase in fine sediment supply to the study area occurred in the first third of the 20th century. The gravel-bed reach responded primarily with channel narrowing, whereas bed aggradation and four large-scale avulsions occurred in the sand-bed reaches. These avulsions almost completely replaced a section of sinuous channel about 14 km long with a straighter section about 7 km long. The most upstream avulsion, located near a break in valley slope and the transition from a gravel bed upstream and a sand bed downstream, transformed a sinuous sand-bed reach into a braided gravel-bed reach and eventually into a meandering gravel-bed reach over a 30-year period. Later, an increase in flood magnitudes and durations caused widening and secondary bed aggradation in the gravel-bed reaches, whereas the sand-bed reaches incised and narrowed. Water diversions since the 1950s have progressively eliminated moderate flood events, whereas larger floods have been less affected. The loss of frequent flooding has increased the duration and severity of drought periods during which riparian vegetation can establish along the channel margins. As a result, the channel has gradually narrowed throughout the study area since the late 1960s, despite the occasional occurrence of large floods. No tributaries enter the Duchesne River within the study area, so all reaches have experienced identical changes in stream flow and upstream sediment supply.

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